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Burma: Reject Constitutional Referendum

Government’s Poor Cyclone Response Shows Need for Democratic Reform

(New York) - Governments should not endorse the results of Burma’s fatally flawed constitutional referendum, but instead renew pressure for genuine democratic reform in Burma, Human Rights Watch said today.

On May 15, 2008, Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) announced that 99 percent of eligible voters voted in the referendum (in the areas where voting took place) and that 92.4 percent of those voting on May 10 endorsed the proposed constitution. The SPDC made the announcement despite postponing the referendum until May 24 in areas worst-affected by Cyclone Nargis, including Burma’s largest city, Rangoon.

“Burma’s rulers have shown no less contempt for the political rights of the Burmese people with the referendum than they have with their welfare after the cyclone,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments that are truly concerned about Burma’s people should push harder for real democracy and political openness.”

The military government refused international or independent referendum monitors and UN assistance in conducting the voting. Initial unconfirmed reports from within Burma support Human Rights Watch’s concerns that the referendum was conducted in an atmosphere of official coercion and vote tampering.

Local observers reported intimidation of voters by the authorities. In Three Pagodas Pass town, Karen State police and the fire brigade were at polling stations to ensure voters made a “yes” vote for the proposed constitution.

A journalist from Mon State told Human Rights Watch, “In Mudon Township, people were followed into polling booths by officials to see how they voted. They had no confidentiality. Most people were scared. One woman told me she wanted to vote ‘no,’ but when she was followed she voted ‘yes.’ In other villages, officials only accepted ‘yes’ votes, they threw away ‘no’ votes. Polling station staff were threatened with the sack if their [polling stations] returned a ‘no’ vote.”

There were reports of voting being prevented altogether. At the Myaing Kalay Village Tract of six villages close to Myawaddy, the authorities set up a polling station and just took villagers’ names and house registrations. In villages in Kya Inn Seik Gyi township in Karen State, no households were registered to vote and no voting took place. In one village, some 2,000 people did not vote at all.

A local observer told Human Rights Watch, “It was not fair from the beginning, no independent monitoring, especially in rural areas. When villagers arrived at polling stations, they didn’t get ballot papers but were asked for their name, any ID and household registration number. [There was] no explanation, but we assume their details were used for a ‘yes’ vote.”

There is evidence that government officials altered referendum results. A journalist from Kachin State told Human Rights Watch, “When I phoned officials, I knew they told me the SPDC didn’t win everywhere … [One official] told me many quarters in Myintkyina voted ‘no.’ My quarter voted ‘yes’ but Dukahtawng voted ‘no,’ and in Waingmaw township the government changed the result from ‘no’ to ‘yes.’”

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch issued the report “Vote to Nowhere: The May 2008 Constitutional Referendum in Burma,” which showed that the referendum was being carried out in an environment of severe restrictions on access to information, repressive media laws, an almost total ban on freedom of expression, assembly, and association, and the continuing widespread detention of political activists. Following the devastation of Cyclone Nargis on May 2-3, Human Rights Watch called for the postponement of the referendum so that all government efforts could be focused on providing humanitarian assistance for the millions of storm survivors.

Human Rights Watch has long expressed concerns that the proposed constitution seeks to entrench military rule and limit the role of independent political parties. Under the draft constitution, the commander-in-chief will appoint military officers for a quarter of all seats in both houses of parliament, and the military has even broader representation in the selection of the president and two vice-presidents.

The draft constitution treats political parties with open hostility: draconian restrictions exclude many opposition politicians from running for office, and a custom-drafted clause prevents opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from holding any elected office because she is the widow of a foreigner. The draft constitution makes it virtually impossible to amend these clauses, because more than three-quarters of the members of both houses of parliament need to approve any amendment. Given that the military holds at least one quarter of the seats – members of the military can also run for any “open seats,” so their representation will be significantly higher – it holds an effective veto.

Human Rights Watch said that respect for basic rights to free expression, information, association, and movement were also important for permitting a rapid governmental response to natural disasters such as Cyclone Nargis.

“The Burmese government’s response to the cyclone demonstrates why it is so urgent to keep promoting human rights and democratic reform in Burma,” said Adams. “While aid for the victims is the immediate priority, promoting political reform is also a humanitarian imperative.”

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